Two years ago, 7 year old Kaylb Primm was handcuffed at school for crying because he was being bullied. Kaylb was both black and differently abled, having hearing loss in one ear. When I read about incidents like this, I get scared and frustrated. There are two prongs to this that are intricately tied together, the first being different, and the second bullying.
It starts with the fact that as a society, we treat people who are different poorly. I know this having struggled with autistic tendencies all my life, and I know this watching my five year old son with autism grow up. I know this as someone married to a multi-racial man who presents as racially ambiguous who is also differently abled, and I know this as an atheist in the southern US. When you are different, people treat you poorly.
As far as disability goes, especially hidden disability in my son and mine’s case, people think you are faking or not trying hard enough. I’ve written a lot about the problems my son encountered during his brief time in public schools. As for me, one of the struggles I had was with an auditory processing disorder. Basically when I hear sound I process it as word salad. I recently saw this video, and it was so familiar, because this is how conversations sounded to me when I was growing up.
Basically learning to read was what helped me to figure out language. But it was a long, slow and entwined process, and to this day I still can’t hold conversations in crowded, noisy venues and talking on the phone is hard for me.
Now, based on that video, imagine trying to figure out what a teacher is saying. Or what other children are playing on the playground. Or how to respond in a conversation. When you’re hearing is compromised, socialization is next to impossible, even though you do want to listen to the teacher and you do want to understand what people are telling you. I can remember that struggle and frustration.
However, teachers said I wasn’t trying hard enough.
I don’t know why teachers think kids would rather deal with the humiliation and embarrassment that comes with not getting things other kids get easily by not trying hard enough, but that’s the line teachers tend to sing.
Since, like most girls, I at least stayed quiet and wasn’t disruptive, it could have been a lot worse.
Like me, Kaylb has hearing difficulties. I’ve already established how difficult it is to socialize when your hearing is compromised. Here’s the other thing that happens, though. You get good at reading body language and vocal tone because you’re trying to figure out whether other people are happy with you or not. And yes, you can tell when people are making fun of you, though at times it may be confusing as to why they are.
My first thought is what was the teacher doing to discourage the bullying? What was the teacher doing to set up his/her classroom in a way that was accepting of children who are different? And if a group of children was bullying another child to the point they were crying (which, trust me, kids do not want to cry at school, it is humiliating. To this day I am good at holding back tears even when no one is around), where was the teacher to say, “stop!?”
But the other part is that the police officer came and handcuffed the child who was being bullied and crying. With the implication being the victim was at fault. Sadly, this does not surprise me. People who are bullied are blamed for bringing it on somehow.
When I was in school, the teachers, assistant principals, and principal all either turned a blind eye or promoted the bullying. The principal told my parents if I wasn’t so weird then the other kids would leave me alone. My crime was being “weird.” I wasn’t hurting anyone, I was just “weird.” That we should be accepting of everyone and their peculiarities was unheard of.
Worse, there’s this cultural idea that if bad things happen to us, we’ve brought them on somehow. From blaming people who have been raped for their attacks to asking domestic violence victims what they did to provoke their abusers, we tend to think if someone was bullied, they brought it on somehow. You see this idea in kid’s shows.
Both of my kids love Yo Gabba Gabba, but every time this song comes on, I want to kick in the tv.
The refrain is: Be nice to everyone, and they will be nice to you.
You can be nice to people, and they will still treat you like crap. I remember when I was eleven that I should find one thing to compliment someone on every day to make the world a bit more positive (by nature I was an optimistic, life experience has turned me into a cynic). Well, by that time I was so reviled at my school that getting a compliment from me was apparently an insult. Who wanted to be complimented by the most hated girl at school afterall? I quickly stopped, and went back to trying to be invisible.
Further, you should be nice to people because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’ll be rewarded, but that’s another topic.
Anyway, there is this idea that if someone is being bullied it’s their fault. Hence why Kaylb ended up in handcuffs and not the kids bullying him.
And this is where I just despair. We have a bully, Donald Trump, who has a chance of winning the presidency. This election has been so triggering and mentally taxing for me that I can’t wait for November to get here (and hopefully, Trump will lose). The fact that so many people have voted for such an unabashed bully is both painful and scary. Scary because of the precedents it sets as well as the fact of what will happen should he have the power of the presidency.
Here’s the thing, as a society, we reward bullies. I saw how bullying was rewarded in school and how people who were different were not tolerated. I’ve seen how bullying is rewarded in the work place, and how people with an ethical backbone are trampled under bullies who just want power and pay raises. And now I’m seeing people ready to hand power over to a bully who has viciously attacked a reporter who is differently abled, said horrible and demeaning things about women, and has said revoltingly racist things about people of color.
We need to stop punishing people for being different. We need to get rid of this idea of “normal” and expect people to live up to it. I will never be normal. Neither will my son. However, we have strengths that “normal” people don’t have. Just like people of different races, cultures, and religions have different perspectives that are of value. We ignore these to the detriment of ourselves.
A good place to start would be schools. Instead of treating kids with different abilities like inconveniences, teachers should be asking how to promote tolerance and acceptance. And it isn’t that difficult. When my mom taught kindergarten she would have children with ADHD. Rather than insisting on medication, she would tell her class, “So and so has a brain that works a bit differently and he learns better if he can walk around the classroom while I talk.”
The other kids accepted it and were fine with it. And the kids with ADHD thrived in her classroom.